Who would have guessed that a middle-school spelling bee would make a great musical?
And who could have guessed that “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” would be a huge, Tony-winning hit? Or that it would become, in the space of five years, one of America’s most in-demand musicals?
The odds were longer than, well, winning the National Spelling Bee.
Yet somehow, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” has pulled this feat off. And now, the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre will open its season with the regional premiere of this funny, snappy William Finn (“Falsettos”) musical.
It all takes place in a middle-school gymnasium, where Putnam County’s leading bookworms and nerds have gathered to compete for the coveted title of best speller in the county.
The audience soon gets to know several of the youthful protagonists (played by adult actors): William Barfee, who spells with the help of a secret weapon (his foot); Logainne Schwartzangrubenierre, who has two dads; Chip Tolentino, last year’s self-confident champ; Leaf Coneybear, who spells in a trance; Marcy Park, an overachiever who is not allowed to cry; and Olive Ostrovsky, the gawky loner.
What ensues is, by most accounts, irresistible. The New York Times called Rachel Sheinkin’s book “satirical, indeed often riotously funny” and Finn’s songs “nimble and upbeat.”
The show began as a non-musical titled “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E” done by a Massachusetts improv comedy group. Playwright Wendy Wasserstein saw it, loved it and convinced Finn that it had potential as a musical.
When it premiered in a small off-Broadway production in 2005, Charles Isherwood of the New York Times called it “lovably inconsequential and entirely adorable.” He said it “feels refreshingly handcrafted rather than manufactured by committee and market-tested.”
Word of mouth spread. Crowds flocked to it.
Within three months, it transferred to a large Broadway theater. Critics loved the bigger production every bit as much.
“Mr. Finn’s more wistful songs provide a nice sprinkling of sugar to complement the sass in Rachel Sheinkin’s zinger-filled book,” the New York Times said.
It became, along with “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” one of the year’s biggest smashes. “Spelling Bee” went on to run for nearly three years, closing in 2008. It won two Tony Awards and has proven to be a top road-show attraction.
As usual, the CdA Summer Theatre has been able to recruit top national talent.
Matthew Wade, who will play Leaf Coneybear, played Leo Bloom in the national tour of “The Producers.” Yvonne Same, who plays Marcy Park, had that role in the national tour of this show.
Artistic Director Roger Welch directs a cast of nine, also including Andrew Hartley, Laura Sable, Jay Paranada, Mallory Cooney King, Reed McColm, J Reese and Kara Jones. The musical director is Chris Thompson.
By the way, you might want to brush up on your spelling. Four audience members will be chosen every night to participate, onstage, in the spelling bee.
No, you can’t actually win – the results are scripted, of course – but you can at least try to put on a decent showing.